MEM 2019: business as usual can no longer be the way to go

7 November 2019

Think about this: how would a ban on waste exports work without a corresponding requirement that producers take responsibility for the products they design and create throughout their lifecycles? Where would materials that were once legitimately traded for remaunfacturing go post-ban if these producers and both federal and state governments do not commit to remanufacturing and purchasing post-consumer recyclate? These are just some of the questions that the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) is urging Environment Ministers to consider at Friday’s Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM). The meeting, the first and only one scheduled for 2019, will focus on the newsworthy COAG export ban.

“Industry absolutely applauds the vision to boost Australia’s domestic reprocessing capacity and end reliance on exporting recyclables, however we are dismayed at the lack of tangible action to enable this shift. We are completely aligned with the Prime Minister’s objective, but the reality is that it simply cannot be delivered under business as usual settings. China bans came into force 18 months ago and if it was easy to just stop exports, it would already have happened! If we are going to make real change and not just set targets we can’t meet or will only meet through perverse outcomes of increasing waste to landfill, then we have to have real support packages and sensible timeframes. We can do this but not at zero cost and not with a few months’ notice,” WMRR CEO, Ms Gayle Sloan, said.

“In the absence of real market development, real investment in post-consumer recyclate and real responsibility on manufacturers to manage the waste they produce, the ban will simply set our essential industry up for further pressure by cutting access to viable markets when Australia is failing to grow its own domestically!

Australia has so far failed to introduce policies to drive demand and make producers equitably and appropriately responsible for the materials they produce. Other than the states that have introduced a Container Refund Scheme, Australia does not yet have funding models that underpin polluter-pays policies, incentives to encourage the use of recycled product instead of virgin materials, and enforceable targets.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that in the absence of this leadership by government, the responsibility of the ban will once again fall on local government and the waste and resource recovery industry to fund and solve these challenges. Let’s remember that neither local councils or our essential industry create these products, we simply receive them in what is a very linear - take, make, dispose – economy,” Ms Sloan added.

The majority of waste export materials captured by the proposed ban is in fact packaging waste that can be readily returned to packaging in Australia with the right investment, and while Australia has targets including all packaging being recyclable, reusable, and compostable by 2025, WMRR has real concerns that these targets will be not met.

“Firstly, this 2025 timeline does not make sense considering the federal government intends to commence the ban from as early as 2020. Secondly, these targets are voluntary and producers, including packagers, are under no obligation to meet them, which means that councils, householders and the waste and resource recovery industry will simply continue to meet the costs of managing end-of-life materials which will have no home after the ban,” Ms Sloan explained.

“We are calling on the federal government to launch Australia’s first mandated Product Stewardship Scheme, starting with packaging, to support this ban, given the proposed materials comprise predominantly mixed plastic and paper packaging, and because we also know that end-of-life packaging can be remanufactured into new packaging – consumers want Australia to do this and Australian companies are already doing it now, though many preference cheaper materials from Asia. So perhaps a ban on Australian packaging waste exports by government must also commensurate with a ban on packaging imports.

“A ban sounds great, but it needs to be backed by strong policies, regulations and funding, as well as a robust action plan which includes a funding strategy that will create domestic remanufacturing capacity and market demand for our materials, which in turn will create local jobs,” Ms Sloan concluded.

WMRR has written to all Environment Ministers ahead of MEM. Read the letter here.